Rock Surfing, Rowboating, and More Along the PCT

Where the Pacific Crest Trail traverses the Packwood Glacier, creeping talus has nearly erased the trail tread, turning the trail into a scramble across a steep slope. A volunteer crew, under the leadership of Bill Hawley (PCTA) and Melissa Bennett (USFS), worked to rebuild the trail from August 15-21, the first of four crews spending a week working on this section during August & September, 2013.

The visible trail in the photo below represents the first two days’ work, as seen from the PCT alternate trail to Old Snowy.


Before the trail work began, we hiked in just under 7 miles, from Berry Patch Trailhead to our campsite for the week, walking through beautiful woods and meadows lush with lupines, bear grass, paintbrush, and much more, carrying our personal gear while a terrific team of packers brought in our work tools and other group gear by horse and mule.

Once at camp, we spent the remainder of the day setting up facilities that would serve our work crew plus the three that would follow: a large kitchen tent outfitted with critter-proof plastic tubs, ice chests (soon to become snow chests), and three burners; a small, rock-supported table for serving food and making lunches; and a latrine with spectacular, panoramic views.  As shown below, even on a somewhat cloudy afternoon, the view from the latrine included Mt. Rainer, Goat Lake, almost entirely ice-covered in its high cirque, and much more. And yes, that is duct tape covering the seat of the latrine, which facilitated “leave no trace” practices for a group of 9 people, with TP burned or packed out.


As the sun hit the mountains on Friday morning, from my tent (lower left, below) I had a spectacular view of the Goat Lake cirque, while Mt. Rainer to the north, Mount St. Helens to the east, and Mt. Adams to the south were largely hidden by clouds. By staying in one place for a week, we were able to see these mountains from many perspectives — hidden from view; rising above a thick blanket of fog around their bases; capped by a lenticular cloud (Mt. Rainier); and fully sunlit. Seriously, if in my town of Del Mar, a premium is paid based on the degree and quality of ocean view (from “peek” to whitewater), what would the fair market rental be for the little patch of meadow where I staked my tent for a week, surrounded by three volcanic giants? I enjoyed a different stunning panorama every morning, though I admit that in the evenings, I slept through quite a few good views, including sunset colors and showy moon and star displays.


For example, here’s what Mt. Rainier looked like from my tent one evening, capped by a lenticular cloud:


Every morning, David (left, below), Leif (right), and Bill could be counted on for early and strong coffee, along with weather predictions and admiration of the views, which tended to change rapidly as the sun, clouds, and blankets of fog shifted.  The tent behind David and Leif was the venue for some pretty amazing culinary work by Karla, our camp cook, who produced everything from pancakes and real oatmeal to stir fry with homemade peanut sauce, Mexican casseroles (both vegan and non-), meatloaf and lentil loaf, berry and fruit compotes and crumbles, and so much more, including lots of fresh produce from the garden. Seriously delicious food, and that’s not just the altitude and exertion talking! Karla, we bow low before you in gratitude.


On Friday morning, Melissa (Forest Service) gave a brief introduction to the tools we would be using, including rock bars, pick mattocks, McLeods, hazel hoes, Reinhart grubbing tools, rock rakes, rock slings and ladders. (Of all the tools on hand, the only one I had worked with before was a shovel…) We learned how to carry these various tools safely, and soon set off for our first work session. Mt. Adams and the toxic red algae on the snow fields that served as our water supply stood witness beyond us to provide some gravitas to our undertaking.


Our commute to the work site includes crossing a wide snowfield, just past my tent. It’s mid-August, and I’m definitely not in Southern California!

Commute Across the Snow

Much of the work is establishing  a sort of rock wall along the downslope side of the trail, taking into account how the selected rocks will fit together, with good points of contact, and working to place the heavy side of the rock toward the inside of the trail, to help keep the rock from “following the call of gravity,” taking the trail tread with it.  Some of these rocks are selected from the slope above (“rock shopping”), then the selected rock is “surfed” down. A combination of preparation and luck will keep the rock from sliding right past its intended spot on the trail onto the snow field below, but we had several occasions to watch a carefully selected rock bound down the snow, beyond reach.  Bill C. estimated that some of the rocks, affectionately termed BFRs, weighed four times my body weight. Needless to say, while I surfed down a few small-to-medium sized rocks, no amount of leverage made me very useful around the BFRs, though it was a fun challenge to use various leveraging techniques to move big rocks: rowboating and railroading, for example. There were plenty of other tasks: digging holes, backfilling with cobble, gravel, and dirt, etc. Below (L to R): Leif, Bill C., Bill H., David, and Tyler.


During the week, Bill replaced the old signs at approx. Mile 2284.9 (at left), with a new one. At right: Melissa, our Forest Service co-leader, and Bill, our PCTA co-leader, are at the junction of the main and alternate trails. Both were tremendous inspirations to me – knowledgeable, patient, and great teachers.  As for the routes formerly known as the hiker route and the stock route, I’d have to say that hiking northbound, I would (and did) pick the route now labeled the PCT Alternate, in part for even better views than the trail we worked on, and in part because it fulfills the “Crest” concept in the PCT’s name. That alternate route might be a little sketchier southbound, with some steep, narrow and slippery areas, but I walked back on the lower trail, which had its own share of steep ice, snow, and slippery slate talus. But then, I didn’t have the benefit of the snow trail Melissa chopped out later in the week.


David and Bill C. take a well-deserved break on a section of the trail they’ve been working:


Melissa spent a morning creating almost all of this trail across a steep snow field. One woman, one Pulaski (right? or pick mattock?), one morning — and, voila! — a trail that should last the season.


I joined Melissa after lunch to put the finishing touches on the last bit of trail, using a Reinhart. (Work gloves? I pulled them off to shake out the snow and let them dry in the sun, before the photo, below left, was taken.) Shortly after we finished, we watched some hikers test out the result.  They seemed like satisfied customers!


And on our last work day, the day before we hiked out, this was the view from our work site:


At the end of the last work day, there was just one more BFR that, well, — let’s just say the menfolk felt it needed moving. This photo doesn’t do justice to this last bit of work, but I do have videos, for potential future blackmail purposes:


What a tremendous week! Not every job produces such visible, measurable results, and it’s hard to imagine a more spectacular work site, or a more terrific group of coworkers.  A big thanks to the PCTA and USFS for making this project a reality, and to the three work crews that are following us to complete what we started.

~Two Bar Betty
(and yes, that is a joke)